In memory: Kirsty Milne

Former NS staffer Dr Kirsty Milne has died.

We are sad to report the loss of a former New Statesman editor, Dr Kirsty Milne.

After joining the New Statesman staff in 1993 following its merger with her former paper New Society, Kirsty wrote reviews and features for the NS and other publications, including the Times, Telegraph and a politics column for the Scotsman. She later became a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and a Research Fellow specialising in early modern English and the classics at Wolfson College, Oxford.

She died this week and will be much missed. Sarah Baxter, a colleague at the magazine in the early 90s and now Deputy Editor at the Sunday Times, said: "Kirsty was a wonderful colleague, full of energy, mischief and fun. She loved political ideas and political intrigue, and wrote about them brilliantly. She was always insistent that her name was pronounced Keersty, not Kursty ... After being told off a few times, I've never been able to pronounce Kirsty any other way. She was my great friend and confidante at the Statesman, and I'll miss her dearly."

Below is a reprint of the first article she wrote for the NS entitled, "Inside the Glasgow glass envelope", and dated 21 November 1986.

Inside the Glasgow glass envelope

What can you do for a city undergoing an economic identity crisis? With dying industrial heartlands, unemployment running above 20 per cent and a reputation for social deprivation which continues to stick? 'Adapt or die' is the response most commonly to be heard in Glasgow, and the result is a remarkable phenomenon — a city in search of a future.

There's no question that Glasgow is in danger of being left behind, a casualty city which just happened to be, in the words of one council official, 'in the wrong place, facing the wrong way, and making the wrong things'. Like the rest of Britain, Glasgow has had to watch the slow decline of its traditional manufacturing base — in shipbuilding, steel and engineering. There are only two shipyards left; the Clyde used to be crucial to Glasgow and now people are saying bitterly that you can fish in it. Manufacturing in Glasgow contracted by 30 per cent between 1978 and 1983, and plants which were once familiar features of the city continue to close.

The rate of redundancies, which peaked in 1980, is slowing down, but the cumulative result is a bad case of long-term unemployment: latest figures show that of the 77,204 jobless in Glasgow, 9,280 have been out of work for more than six years. Where are the new jobs to come from? The electronics industry clearly isn't the knight on the high-tech charger that's required; it only provides 42,000 jobs in the whole of Scotland, and besides, computer companies have tended to locate in other parts of 'Silicon Glen', especially New Towns.

To the rescue come Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Development Agency (SDA), both of which have put their faith in the service sector as the only realistic area for growth in employment. To this end there's been a lot of emphasis on improving the quality of the city centre, which is visibly in the process of turning itself inside out. The whole area known as Merchant City, with its extravagant Victorian facades, is being redeveloped to provide shops, offices and up to 2,000 homes as bait for Glasgow yuppies. South of Argyle St a huge site awaits a glass envelope which will protect a shopping centre, an ice rink and a multi-storey car park from the incessant Scottish rain in the £62m St Enoch's development. Even the old fish market, the Briggait, has been turned into glossy umbrella forstalls and specialist shops, though with a view across the Clyde to the Gorbals it looks as much like Covent Garden as a fish out of water.

Nevertheless, Donald Dewar, Shadow Scottish Secretary and MP for Glasgow Garscadden, describes the general atmosphere with the greater precision: 'the place is hopping'. And much of the hopping takes place under the careful eyes of the council and the SDA, working to combine public spending with private investment in as many projects as possible. The SDA is a unique phenomenon (and the Treasury would like it to stay that way): a semi-independent, government- funded organisation set up by Harold Wilson in 1975 to do something about the Scottish economy. As a leading industrial landlord with a gross annual budget of more than £130m, the SDA is much respected by the 200 or so people who make up the Scottish establishment for being hard­headed and commercially-minded. Not surprising, then, that a Treasury review last month criticised the SDA for being too interventionist. Certainly it has a finger in innumerable pies — in Glasgow alone it put money into the Scottish Conference and Exhibition Centre, initiated the GEAR project to put money into the East End of Glasgow, and is managing the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival through a wholly-owned subsidiary.

Last year it set up a new group, Glasgow Action, to promote the city as a business location and the dynamic young director, David Macdonald, is as much interested in the music business as in merchant banks (Glasgow, remember, produced not only Ultravox and Simple Minds but the Associates and Strawberry Switchblade as well). His organisation has specific targets: relieving Glasgow of its status as a 'branch economy' (i.e. attracting more company HQs to Glasgow — Britoil was a recent success); improving air links with Europe and the USA; developing Glasgow's tourist industry (the Burrell Collection, opened in 1983, has now overtaken Edinburgh castle as Scotland's top tourist attraction).

However, there's nothing he can teach Glasgow City Council about selling the city; after all, for three years now Mr Happy has been seen on London buses proclaiming 'Glasgow's Miles Better' and the campaign has been given a boost since Glasgow won the British nomination for European City of Culture in 1990. Macdonald describes the council as 'solidly socialist and very pragmatic with it . . . the city's interests always come first'. Perhaps it's the pragmatism born of numerical supremacy (the Labour group has 50 councillors to the Conservatives' 5, and a visiting Hackney councillor was reputedly shocked when she saw how cosily collusive they all were).

The council needs its pragmatism when it comes to housing; as the biggest landlord in Europe it has the dubious distinction of presiding over some of the worst council housing in Britain: an estimate 10,000 homes in Glasgow don't have a bath. Government spending restrictions have limited the council's capital spending to modernisation and planned repairs, so it's small wonder that they should be encouraging private developers and housing associations to build and convert more homes — even selling council houses to tenants the deprived suburb of Easterhouse. But the core of the housing problem remains the post-war estates built on the periphery of the city: Pollok, Castlemilk, Easterhouse and Drumchapel. Almost one in four of the unemployed in Glasgow lives there.

What will the expansion of the service sector do for those one in four? Will it pick up the long-term unemployed? Retailing and office work may be subject to mechanisation and contraction of numbers in the future as manufacturing has been in the past. There are some economists that would argue that, anyway, the growth of the service sector goes hand in hand with the growth of the manufacturing industry. In Glasgow, Donald Dewar speaks of the need for a ‘balanced economy’ with ‘a core of manufacturing which is competitive’. Campbell Christie, General Secretary of the STUC is also unhappy about the over-reliance on the service sector. He would like to see Glasgow’s traditional areas of manufacturing, including the shipyards, sustained; new industries developed; and a major programme of expenditure on housing and construction projects to provide jobs and tackle Glasgow’s decaying infrastructure.

Earlier this month, the Invisible Export Council confirmed that employment in the UK service sector isn’t likely to increase substantially and won’t compensate for the jobs lost in manufacturing industry. But even if the service sector does represent the only real possibility for growth in Glasgow (and it’s worth pointing out that it’s remained more or less static since 1971), a depressing scenario suggests itself – that of a pepped-up city centre, a flourishing service sector, and, on the periphery, the long-term marginalised unemployed. In microcosm, it could be what’s in store for the British economy as a whole: 87 per cent of us in work and getting richer – and the rest out in the cold.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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